So, after talking about 1941, we’ll continue this series with one of the biggest flops of the period, which according to legend, bankrupted United Artists, torched a promising director’s career and only became recognized as a good, if not great film after it crashed and burned, three decades after its release. I, of course, am referring to Heaven’s Gate.
Talking about Heaven’s Gate is so complicated, so long, and ultimately so pointless, I’ll try to give you a cliff notes version, but it’ll still feel long.
In 1978, a film called The Deer Hunter was released, and it was a critical and commercial hit, winning the Oscar for Best Picture and its director, Michael Cimino, a Best Director Oscar. The film itself was a powerful and emotional study, about three friends who head off to fight in the Vietnam War, and the mental and emotional repercussions of their actions, through the symbolic use of Russian Roulette, as a way to say to the audience, “This is the situation we put ourselves in America, with the Vietnam War.”
Around the same time, The Deer Hunter was in post-Production, five top United Artists executives left the studio, unhappy with Transamerica’s handling of business, to form their independent studio, Orion. So, a new group of executives, had to find a film to put themselves on the map. They thought they had found the director in Cimino.
Cimino wanted to make Heaven’s Gate, a film about the Johnson County War, an 1892 war between US Cattle ranchers and immigrants. He had worked on a script for nine years so far. United Artists gave him the go ahead. However, Cimino became an extreme perfectionist and went absurdly over-budget, and when the film came out a year later in a 219-minute cut, it only played a week in New York, before being pulled due to bad reviews, and negative publicity.
Cimino recut it a year later to a 149-minute cut, with added narration, and it still got negative reviews, by this point, United Artists was being sold to MGM, and it went in the books as one of the biggest bombs in movie history.
Then something funny happened, the 219-minute cut, got shown on TV, and released on VHS, Laserdisc, and received a positive reception, especially in Britain, where it was revealed the big failure of the film was the negative publicity and the critics and media harping on the massive budget, and not adequately reviewing the film on its own merits. There are many questions to be asked, but we’ll get into those in closing thoughts.
The film didn’t receive a US reappraisal until the release of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, in 2012, and even then, it still splits critics, either as a masterpiece or as an overdone mess. The correct answer always lies somewhere in the middle.
So, let’s sum up the plot, like The Deer Hunter, is very triptych inspired, (three different sections to tell a complete story.) The story itself is about the Johnson County War, but our protagonist is James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), a sheriff hired in Johnson County, Wyoming. Sam Waterston plays the villain, Frank Canton, a rich businessman who wants to kill off all the homesteaders, because they’re fighting with Canton’s company, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. One of Averill’s friends was his fellow Harvard classmate of 1870 was the class orator, Billy (John Hurt), who is also part of this association, for some reason. To execute this plan, Waterston hires Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), to kill the homesteaders, but Averill and Champion are also friends, and in love with the same woman, a bordello owner named Ella (the French actress Isabell Huppert), the result of all this is a giant battle scene, where everything seems to blow up, and with a lot of people dead.
So, if this plot synopsis seems anorexically short, it kind of is. However, let’s start with the positives because there are a surprising amount. The film is visually gorgeous, I watched the 2012 restored version, as the original version was very sepia tone like in picture quality, and it made the images ugly to look at. With that said the original version no longer exists. Now the colors pop, in a way they never did before, and you can genuinely admire what Cimino is doing visually during the film. In other words, Cimino took the phrase, “Every shot is a painting,” and made it a reality.
Another thing which I find works, is the theme of Americans vs. Americans, in particular, the class struggle between those who escaped to America for a better life, and those who seek to keep immigrants down there, it’s surprisingly relevant in this day and age, and this helps the film age better, because of it.
The performances are a mixed bag, while Christopher Walken, was well, Christopher Walken, and Sam Waterston was great in his role, because you believe what he is saying, and John Hurt has a lot of fun, playing the drunk executive. Of course, I forgot our male lead, Kristofferson, he’s fine, it’s not Oscar-worthy, there is a certain charisma to his performance, but considering who he’s acting against, it feels at time underacted, and it’s not a good thing. Jeff Bridges and Brad Dourif are also in this, Bridges plays another businessman who runs a roller rink called naturally, “Heaven’s Gate.”, and is on the homesteader’s side, and Dourif plays the leader of the united homesteaders, Mr. Eggleston.
Now, it’s time to the talk about the negatives, because there is a fair amount. The film has a rather unusual sense of pacing and seeks to hypnotize us into this world. Which worked for me, but it honestly may not work for some people, which is a shame, scenes do play a little bit longer than they should, (some minor trims could have tightened the film up to a solid 3 hours, and honestly, it would seem reasonable.) The other big problem is the dialogue. For a movie with such an epic scale, amazing visuals, and a unique view on American history, the dialogue feels rather underwhelming; it’s nowhere near as epic as it should be. I’m not saying “Thou shall and shall not,” but this is a movie where Walken and Huppert have a discussion about wallpaper, this is a scene in the movie, and it goes on for about five minutes. It’s well directed, but it feels like there’s a smaller movie in the dialogue and the characterization, instead of this colossal epic, we were promised (and delivered for the most part).
So why did it fail? As always multiple reasons. There was a quote by the late great Gene Siskel from a Siskel and Ebert worst of episode, which I find to be one of the factors, “there was a lot of jumping on it, because of the budget, which is a separate problem from what was on the screen.” The film he was talking about was Hudson Hawk but honestly feels like it fits Heaven’s Gate more than anything else. The stories about the production problems came out and spread like wildfire, which doomed the film before it was even released. Another factor was the fact of Cimino being a constant liar. He lied about his military record claiming he served in the Army in 1968, (records showed he served in the Army Reserve in 1962), and didn’t come off like a Spielberg or a Scorsese, who for lack of a better words were good interviews, they acknowledged their failures, and weren’t arrogant about it. With Cimino, it was arrogance. In a 1990 interview, he acknowledged full responsibility but decided to let the film stand on its own terms, which isn’t good damage control at all.
Overall, Heaven’s Gate isn’t a rediscovered classic, but it is a legitimately good film with marvelous imagery and shot composition, with relevant themes, solid performances, and fitting and surprisingly good music (composed by David Mansfield, who cameos as the fiddle player in the long roller-skating sequence). Yet never achieves the classic status it should, due to dialogue issues, but I would recommend the film because of its impressive visuals.